Disability, Identity, and Allegorical Gender in SHADES AND SILVER

This essay contains spoilers for SHADES AND SILVER by Dax Murray. 

Audio version at link.

Many attempts at gender allegories in fantasy (or sci-fi) fall apart because they try to replicate binary gender in an attempt at gender essentialism in different trappings. SHADES AND SILVER deftly avoids this by starting without gender and then never focusing on it. 

“Shades” and “Silver” are a pair of stories set in a world where each person chooses their metal(s) and crafts their horn when they come of age. “Shades” is about a character recovering from a traumatic brain injury as they undergo a coming-of-age ceremony, and how the injury affects their choices in that rite of passage. “Silver” follows a character who has been through the rite of passage, and has their horn, but their horn is fake, and the dissonance caused by that social deception weighs on them. Both stories are set in a society without delineations of gender, and part of why it works so well is that it is not trying to use metal horns to replicate some version of gender. Social constructs like personal identity, social signifiers, and group cohesion are all things that gender facilitates in many parts of our world, but this novella illustrates very well how something else can fill those social needs, especially in a fantasy setting. Instead, in SHADES AND SILVER, the horns are a social signifier, central to a rite of passage, and a way of claiming one’s own identity and declaring some aspect of personality to the community. The horns are specifically important for claiming adult identity in this life. This is needed partly because they are reborn into new bodies after death, carrying over only a bracelet made from the melted-down metal of their previous horn. Perhaps this rebirth will be in the same clan, but it may be in a distant one where no one remembers any previous version of them. 

"Shades" begins quietly, introducing Britt on the morning of their coming-of-age ceremony. Britt has bouts of aphasia, the inability to recall words, and this stops them from doing something normally as simple as saying good morning to their housemates when they enter the kitchen. As the scene unfolded, I gradually realized that they/them pronouns were being used for every character, implicitly establishing something which would be confirmed later: gender is not a construct used in this particular society. When it's time to proceed to the coming-of-age ceremony/vision where they'll choose their horn and enter adulthood, Britt has momentary vertigo and worries that they won't be able to properly complete the ceremony due to their disability. One of the tricky things about an injury to the brain is that it can disrupt one's sense of self, diminishing or altering it. The person is often either temporarily or permanently in an altered state which can be very different from who they were before. Copper was Britt’s metal in their last life, as signaled by the bracelet on their wrist made from their previous life’s horn. It would be simple for Britt to stay as copper, but that metal is associated with a great many loud and vibrant things which their traumatic brain injury has made it difficult or impossible to enjoy. For Britt, this is magnified by their cultural position as someone whose past lives were not in this clan. There's no stigma with this history, but it means that no one around them can just tell them who they were before. They are denied the option of going along with easy answers from other people, and, due to their injury, they don't feel comfortable choosing the same copper they had previously. 

In their vision, Britt speaks with their most recent past self and tries to get a sense of why this earlier version made a choice that now feels barred to them. They consider choosing something with an entirely different feeling, perhaps one of the metals which are associated with calm, stillness, or solitary living, but it feels just as wrong to eschew any possibility of brightness merely because it hurts them right now. They feel trapped by the reality that they're hurt now but don't want to make a lasting decision on the basis of present injury if they'll eventually heal and regret constraining themself in this moment. Britt's past self counsels them that they can choose how much this disability is part of themself, but it can't be their entire identity. They can't freely choose their metal until they figure out how much they will frame their life around this injury as an inescapable part of them, continually reacting to what was lost instead of embracing what they can still do. Choosing their metal is part of claiming what matters to them and how they want to live as an adult, but it's okay to allow for the reality that who they could have been without the injury might have been significantly different than who they are with it. There isn't a way to go back, and no way to reclaim who they could have been if things had been different. That person doesn't exist, post-injury Britt is here, and they have to choose their metal.

Where it becomes clear that this is not just a story of disability but also an allegory for gender is when it's mentioned that there's some other society which has "gender" instead of this system of metals. Their past self tells Britt, "[the lohyues of Fayn] have their own system they call gender, it is different but has just as many varied choices. I tried it while I was there, but it wasn't for me." What I love about this brief mention of gender is that it's not held up as some terrible system, there's no real description of it, just a mention of something in another society which is as multifaceted as their own system of metal horns. To the extent that gender is relevant, it's specifically as something it's okay to try and then discard if it doesn't fit.

In the second story, "Silver", there's both an idea of gender in the abstract, and the reality that Astrid doesn't have a sense of metal and didn't craft their horn when the time came to become an adult. Instead, a horn was chosen and made for them by their caregiver, someone who exerts an undue amount of control over their life. This strange instance which goes against the general structure of this society is the closest anyone comes to having an assigned gender, and part of Astrid's journey is discovering that they don't have a horn but they might have a gender, for the stars call them "Sister", whatever that means. This allows for readers who exist in a gendered society to find resonance, especially if they're transgender, but not have to deal with fictional transphobia in order to feel seen. I find it useful to think of this as an allegory for assigned gender in the original sense it was meant, as a way to discuss the arbitrary assignment of gender to intersex individuals when their original genitals didn't fit neatly into a binary option. Astrid can't sense any metal, someone made an obsidian horn for them and they've spent their adulthood pretending that it was the right one. The choice was made to fit someone else's goals for them, it doesn't really have anything to do with Astrid as a person, except to make other people comfortable by assuming that because they're wearing a horn they are a normal member of society. This could be an allegory for transness, being intersex, being neurodivergent or any other marginalization that causes people to mask or pretend to be someone they're not for the sake of making other people comfortable. By not trying to be a one-to-one allegory for gender, SHADES AND SILVER has the space to be multifaceted in its resonance.

As an allegory for gender, the horns work in a number of ways. There's some indicator of the former life that most people are found with (the bracelet on their wrist with the melted down metal of their previous horn). Even then, not everyone has one, it depends on whether their previous life chose to make the bracelet at the end. For those who have this physical indicator, they are free to choose to accept it without variation, to choose a completely different metal or pair of metals, or to keep that metal and add another to reflect some significant difference between who they were and who they are now. One character is described as having chosen copper in every recorded life, but that seems to be rare. There are at least five metal options and the possibility of many combinations of two if no single metal feels right. This has parallels to trans/nonbinary/genderqueer identity, but in a setting where nothing was originally "assigned" at all. Besides possibly Astrid, there are no specifically transgender characters because they didn't have to exit any original gender assignment to claim a new one. Even Astrid is closest to being agender or intersex as it relates to the horns. For the same basic reason, no one is cisgender. They're not "queer" because nothing about this is strange. I could call it a queernorm world but, depending on the context, that might feel more like othering the characters than it does to just say they're all nonbinary and it's a book about queerness without quite containing any. Arguing for any exact parallel to gender identities or specific kinds of queerness goes against the idea of the story itself.

In SHADES AND SILVER, personal identity is shaped by, but separate from, metals, horns, and injury. The characters are encouraged to figure out their own paths with the guidance of the social structure but not constrained to follow it. Britt is free to incorporate their change in sense of self post-injury into their chosen metals, making a new horn from copper and silver, not forced to give up all of who they used to be, or could have become without that trauma. Astrid rejects the horn that was placed upon them, choosing to exist without pretending to be like everyone else. It's the kind of story that feels very trans without truly having any trans people in it, not because the kinds of people who could be trans elsewhere don't exist, but because the social pressures that normally make transness a distinct category aren't in play in this world. 

I am particularly fascinated with the idea of brain damage affecting a sense of self and of identity as related to allegorical gender because I'm an agender person with a developmental disability and have had at least two distinct sources of brain damage.

I grew up with a trio of dysgraphia, alexithymia and aphantasia, but I didn’t have names for any of them until sometimes last year. Dysgraphia affects many aspects of coordination, and, because most writing is done via the hands, it's named for the way it causes difficulty when writing. My alexithymia is likely from seizures due to oxygen deprivation as a newborn, but because I wasn't conscious yet I don't have any sense of "before" and "after". Most likely I just never developed the particular capacities of emotional depth and imagination that many other people take for granted, and whose absence is what characterizes alexithymia. Aphantasia is a bit trickier, because I can vividly remember things I've actually seen, but because of an inability to imagine I can't alter them or imagine any variations of them. For most situations, it's easier to say I have aphantasia than to dig into the way it's probably a side effect of alexithymia. 

About six months before starting this podcast and blog, I had a traumatic brain injury. It was a concussion, and by the standards of concussions, I appear to have gotten off fairly lightly. But in comparison to how things were before, it’s as if the allowable margin for error on everything got squeezed just a little bit, so that many things happen more slowly and a few things won’t happen at all. The concussion was in the spring of 2019, and it actually wasn’t until everything shut down in the spring of 2020 and I suddenly had to stop the sport I still played that I really began to heal. Forced to idleness, many things in my brain got better over those first six months, but in the early episodes of our podcast I can still hear the slowness in my speech and the stiltedness of my thoughts. The lingering effects made the convergence of alexithymia, dysgraphia, aphantasia, and now aphasia from the concussion impossible to just work around without being intentional about it in specific moments.

I'm nonbinary and trans, specifically agender. Before the concussion, I'd identified at various times as gender-non-conforming, but had settled on nonbinary, maybe agender, but not specifically transgender. After the concussion, my dysphoria was magnified as the dissonance in my mind made it harder to handle the constant dissonance with my body. In the time since I've had two gender-affirming surgeries and am taking other steps to make my body the shape I want to live within. Reading Britt's perspective prompted me to think about the ways that choosing what to do next with my body became more difficult and more urgent once my mind had been unsettled by structural trauma. 

There’s a feeling in my head when I’ve gone far enough, and can go no further, can’t take another mental step in this direction. It feels like a blue screen on a computer or a stalled-out engine, stuck on a loading screen in my head. Dysgraphia makes things harder to write. It means that if I have something I want to communicate and I attempt to do so translated through my hands I’ll only get about a third of it on a first pass, I can drag that up to half if I stay and really put in the work. The thoughts desert me when they must pass through my limbs to become extant. But, the concussion, for the first time, gave me trouble with aphasia, too. Even, or especially, when I’m speaking, I can’t quite remember the right word. I spent my life before the concussion using verbosity to disguise my difficulties with writing. Now, with dysgraphia winnowing my writing and aphasia stealing my speech, some days I feel squeezed at both ends, bursting with thoughts that can’t escape in any form but movement beyond words. 

On these days, I re-read books I love. I walk, I do whatever my current physical activity is. Right now, it’s my longsword class, or sewing while listening to audiobooks. I seek emotional predictability, where I know the shape of what’s coming next, even if it’s been barely long enough for me to not remember every little detail. Because I can't imagine, I generally am not bothered by questions of distinction between substance and image, I only have the one I can interact with, never mind whether it's "real" underneath. This helped me accept that some person who could have existed is gone, and I have to proceed as the person I am now. Britt is trying to figure out how much of them is the same, and whether or not fidelity to that hypothetical but absent self matters. I had to wrestle with this as well over the long months of hiding from light and noise, where anyone talking made my thoughts scatter midsentence like cobwebs before flame. Ultimately, I would have been a different person from a year's worth of experiences, whether or not those experiences had included a brain injury. I would have been just as removed in time from the person I used to be, and I have in fact undergone much more profound alterations of belief and attitude in previous phases of change. The main difference is that, this time, there was a singular event which forced a departure from that prior self, rather than a gradual accumulation of experiences which altered me by inches to make it impossible to hold the same opinions I previously found easy to contain. One of those changes is an alteration of my behavior to bypass the worst effects of dysgraphia. I use dictation to start the words flowing, writing in chunks when the aphasia has abated and I'm able to say what I want. Other changes include gender-affirming surgeries and finally getting a tattoo I've wanted for years. Just like Britt, I'm building the person I want to exist with the tools I collect now and the memories left behind from the person in this body before the injury. I don't need to try and be that person, I don't need to pretend that I wasn't damaged. I'm the one who's here, and I can shape my body to be the right fit for me.


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